GOODBYE & HELLO
I don’t like marking time. Birthdays, anniversaries, or how many years it’s been since a farm in Woodstock was overrun with a bunch of naked interlopers go unobserved. Neither do I count the years since John Lennon was shot or the time that has passed since a certain cloudless day one September. The Mister patiently cues me from a stumble when someone asks how long we’ve been married.
We had an old friend who felt the same as we do and so, for some time, managed the anti-holiday of Christmas with a vegetarian dinner for just the three of us, never acknowledging the stressful clamor that always came in the weeks—now more recently months—leading up to it. We just found a reason to spend a little money on a good bottle of port, to raise a glass and show gratitude for our enduring friendship, feeling all the better for it. A little after-dinner rant on the state of things bolstered by a Christmas pudding alight before we saw him to the bus stop.
This year would be different. Our friend died a few days before Christmas. His passage from admittance to the emergency room at Beth Israel to his quiet death in ICU was swift—a mere five or six weeks—and completely unexpected. So, bereft, we invited a few friends who had the pleasure of meeting Charlie in this life and we walked in the North Woods in Central Park on a brisk afternoon before returning to our place for Christmas dinner. Instead of the ubiquitous carols distorted more often by underage pop stars, which start just after Labor Day now, we played Cole Porter. Christmas crackers were pulled and snapped with abandon. Puns read aloud, tiny plastic games soon discarded. Our heads sweaty from paper hats, we raised a glass and toasted my old friend.
At midnight on Christmas I came down with the dreaded lurgy. The Mister took the fall a mere 24 hours later. For the next four days we slept separately, our coughing fits echoing across the apartment, and probably scaring the bejeezus out of the cats. I missed the big snowstorm. We had one goal though, and that was to get to Montauk for the New Year. Our holiday. Some astute astrologer may more relevantly call it Happy Calendar Change but it’s the New Year for us. The only one we celebrate, not as a time marker, but for the faith in the future and what good things the New Year will bring.
Early on New Year’s Eve we left the care of our cats in the hands of a good friend who wanted a weekend in the city. Coughing intermittently, we bundled into our rental car and headed off to Montauk; our first and only stop at the California Diner on Sunrise Highway. After days without solid food I had visions of BIG BREAKFAST and when the plump and cheerful waitress queried: “Cawfee forya both?” I nearly cried. I ordered big: eggs, home fries, toast, and a side of silver dollar pancakes. The Mister stared at substantial wedges of French toast on the plate before him. It was too much, too soon.
It wasn’t just the flu that had done us in. If I was an old queen I might call it our Annus Horribilis. But, I’m not. So I just call it life. 2010 was a year that brought a lot of sadness with the death of two people close to us. One, a friend who had suffered brain tumors for some thirteen years, and for whom I had been an advocate, finally succumbed. Years ago, when her mother was no longer physically able to accompany her daughter to the many doctors and treatments she underwent I stood in and took the responsibility. For years I read aloud to her after every surgery, and there were many. I attended every doctor and oncologist appointment with her, kept notes and passed that information along to her unresponsive family. I helped her at home, shopped for her and for as long as I could I got her out of her homebound funk to a movie or lunch at a neighborhood diner when walking became too much of a trial. We’d taken to seeing children’s films and Tim Burton’s Alice and Toy Story were the last. When the Good Queen in Alice supposed that her sister had such a huge head because something was growing on her brain, my friend gripped my hand in the darkened theater—and then we laughed. No one in her family seemed willing to step up until the end, of course, and then the kind of family dynamic that oozes guilt spread like a stain. I was shocked at the calculated efforts of some—including a parent—to rewrite their own histories.
She died in September and not a month later my old friend Charlie took ill quite unexpectedly. We called him Fairy Godfather. I met him when I was divorcing the first husband many, many years ago and Charlie was divorcing the church. We could not have been more different and yet had such a strong bond practically from the moment we met. When I married The Mister, he and Charlie became fast friends. We three were 12 years apart in age, all born in the Year of the Boar. When I lost my job he kept our heads above water. You get a lifelong commitment of friendship when you have a boar for a friend.
He died a few days before Christmas. His death was a great blow to us. Over the years we had spoken nearly every day and as he got older when he was feeling flustered by some little thing we talked on the phone three and four times in a day. The Mister came to his aid when something needed fixing, like his computer or his TV. If he felt poorly I shopped for him, carefully adhering to the list of a man who lived a tightly controlled existence, that part of the priesthood he never quite shook free of. He came to us for dinner once a month, religiously. I sent him home with leftovers. When he was generous with cash for our birthdays we turned around and took him out to dinner, spending that cash. He loved his Bombay gin martini, very dry, with an onion. He called very early one morning in November to tell me he had no feeling in his legs. I wanted him to get to the hospital as soon as possible. A friend of his, a former lover, pooh-poohed his fears and wasted some time before finally getting the same, more urgent, directive from a clinic in the neighborhood. I spent the next 10 hours with Charlie in the emergency room at Beth Israel, joined later by The Mister. He was seen by a troop of doctors and specialists, and endured a battery of tests including 4 MRIs at a go. I looked at the scans that showed a large mass on his lower back.
We spent as much time with him in hospital as we could. We brought him cookies from Veniero’s to sweeten his nurses. There were two books that he’d requested, The Odyssey and Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis. He breezed through Mame. Reading the Odyssey was, in Charlie’s words, a preparation for his own odyssey and the going was much slower, more careful. I heard this, of course, and trembled at the meaning. On November 20th I noted in my journal: “I think Charlie will leave us very soon.” Still, we kept things light and respected his wishes not to dwell on what was really happening to him. He, a fiercely self-sufficient giant of a man, let me feed him.
Our final visit lasted 7 hours. His doctor had prepped me for the radical change in our friend. His odds went from 6 months to a mere few days and on our last visit Charlie was already making his way from this world. As his health proxy I made sure the doctor understood Charlie’s wishes and all but the basic tubes were withdrawn. I saw that he had carefully marked his place in The Odyssey, that there were still some 175 pages or so to go. I felt sure Charlie knew we were in the room and I took up the book and I read aloud. I read and read and read. At first I stopped whenever someone came in to attend to him, but I was encouraged to keep reading. So I did. The Mister slipped into a chair beside me, sometimes rising to stroke Charlie’s arm, or his head, and I continued to read, and read, and read. Little movements from Charlie I took to be acknowledgments. I’d read the last lines and another old friend of ours who had been introduced to Charlie fairly recently arrived to say good-bye. As we left, Charlie stirred and opened his eyes. He died a few hours later in the night.
Charlie lived a cloistered life in a tiny room in Chelsea. That lover from his past and someone who’d remained in his life refused to allow me any emotion in our conversations. Once he took on my concerns he wished aloud that Charlie would go sooner than later. He dismissed my tale of Charlie’s good-bye to us: “We can make our own interpretations.” He called that morning and coldly announced, “It’s done.” He couldn’t talk about a memorial to celebrate the life of our friend. He was too emotionally distraught himself, he said. He kept his emotions hidden, he said. And no, he could not join us for Christmas to raise a toast to our friend; it would be too much for him to bear. Yet, it did not hamper him one bit to wrap up Charlie’s affairs that would benefit him in a heartbeat. Surprise to see him at our door was short-lived when he immediately asked me for some things Charlie had given me for safekeeping, a credit card among them. His grief did not prevent him from telling us on our Christmas walk that he and the superintendent of Charlie’s building were making a deal to sublet the rent stabilized apartment and split a healthy rise between them. His grief took over again when we returned to my place, and having got what he came for, he slid quietly from our midst.
We really needed to be in Montauk.
I consider it always to be a good sign for our annual trip through Long Island when Billy Joel comes over the airwaves. Okay, that’s an easy reach but it is, really, still rock and roll to me. We sailed along to the oldies on the nearly empty Southern State, passed by a few SUVs with anti-Obama bumper stickers. The vineyards, more flattened under the invisible boot of winter were swept above with geese lazily re-forming in a liquid “V” pattern. When one radio station sputtered out, we chanced on Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein and that sublime orchestration took us all the way to Montauk.
Near tropical temps greeted us when we checked into The Royal Atlantic—that and the evidence of massive erosion, which had taken a big chunk of the beach, not to mention the stairs from the hotel to the beach. All along the seafront hotels perched precariously above empty space where, you know, sand had been. Pyramids of new sand were waiting to be put in place. We overheard two men we thought might be local: “Someone spent a lotta money on this pile of sand—mason quality—and it’s gonna wash right into the water like nuthin’.”
Unpacking I realized quite quickly that, although I had thought to bring that extra pair of boots and gloves I had completely underestimated my boggled state and forgotten to pack any clothes! A quick trip to Main Street and I was soon outfitted in a brand new yellow hoodie; “Montauk” emblazoned across the front.
Over the next few days we saw more evidence of erosion when we hiked the nature trails along the ocean cliffs—or what is left of them. Many years ago when I was a full time painter I made train excursions to Montauk loaded down with French easel, paints, prepared paper and the requisite supply of bourbon. I hiked along the beach to where eerie geological formations clawed into the sand and rose like sci-fi creatures in a Dr. Who episode above an intrepid walker. Early European travelers called these formations “hoodoos” which comes from the word voodoo. They believed they were evil and caused bad luck. Native Americans, much earlier residents, believed the hoodoos housed spirits. I’d set my easel down in the sand and until the tide licked at my boots I painted these glorious spirits. Now, they are nothing more than undernourished reflections of their former fearsome grandiosity. The ocean will reclaim them sooner than later.
Development is more aggressive in Montauk, sadly visible high along the nature trail in Shadmoor State Park, which will further stress an already limited fresh-water supply. The guy who owns J.Crew has bought the old Warhol Estate along with the oldest working ranch in America nearby. The rich can hunker down in all this beauty and not worry that the few markets in the village don’t (yet) carry the kind of high-end vittles they are used to. “They don’t run out of milk, this bunch,” says The Mister.
When we drive out to the Point for a look at the lighthouse I never fail to eye the huge, and still immobile, SAGE radar rising above Camp Hero. The old military facility is a scrubbed up version of its former abandoned self and not nearly as much fun as when, just having devoured The Montauk Trilogy by Peter Moon, we skittered under barbed wire and explored with beating hearts the place where ancient pyramids, aliens and mind control experiments were said to have existed. So, when that radar screen starts up again…
Our stay in the village was quiet. Late lunch at the Shagwong on the eve and a brisk walk to the ocean at midnight, wrapped in each other’s arms, contemplating another year together. On New Year’s Day we ventured into O’Murphey’s for a meal that came with the waitress’s warning: Wa-a-ay over-sized portions. We never got the perfect Manhattan we’d craved because neither we, nor the bartender had our hearts in it.
There was no getting around the sadness we left back in Manhattan. “Let’s not leave before we leave,” The Mister prompted and it seems very good advice indeed. We talked about the new songs still to be written, new stories, the start of a new novel for me. We have no one to please but ourselves. We have friends who struggle like we do, would lend a hand in a heartbeat, and we are all still above ground. There are discoveries still to be made, stories still to be written, songs to be sung. There are things worth fighting for and it doesn’t matter that one man or woman’s idea of an exciting discovery is to travel to the farther reaches of the globe for the culinary experience of eating the heart of a fawn smothered in onions. It doesn’t matter that people here are blind to the rampant injustice of capital punishment. It doesn’t mean a thing if people react on fb with knee-jerkiness that kicks aside any attempt at broadening the debate. It only matters that once I know something I can’t unknow it. That living an informed life leads more often to positive action. Death doesn’t matter; only the living matter. My old friend Miriam, having lived at least 90 years on this planet recently said to me, “There comes a time, sweetie, when we agree to be recycled.”
My friend and neighbor was inexplicably teary-eyed on our return when I brought her a handful of eggs we had too many of. It was crazy she said, how we could live side by side in our quiet worlds and not see, nor speak to, each other for days, absorbed by our respective writing. But she missed me when I was gone and she was glad we were friends. So, some have said good-bye but I say hello.Annus mirabilis. We might just have that yet.